Saturday, May 5, 2007

Leggo my lego

Over at Club Troppo, Don Arthur examines the controversy surrounding a Seattle school that banned Lego. Well, they didn't so much as ban Lego but put it aside for awhile while property rights rules could be established.

The teachers published an account of their decision in Rethinking Education:

A group of about eight children conceived and launched Legotown. Other children were eager to join the project, but as the city grew — and space and raw materials became more precious — the builders began excluding other children.

Occasionally, Legotown leaders explicitly rebuffed children, telling them that they couldn’t play. Typically the exclusion was more subtle, growing from a climate in which Legotown was seen as the turf of particular kids. The other children didn’t complain much about this; when asked about Legos, they’d often comment vaguely that they just weren’t interested in playing with Legos anymore. As they closed doors to other children, the Legotown builders turned their attention to complex negotiations among themselves about what sorts of structures to build, whether these ought to be primarily privately owned or collectively used, and how “cool pieces” would be distributed and protected. These negotiations gave rise to heated conflict and to insightful conversation.

It is worth a read. Legotown was accidentally destroyed and the older children refused to relinquish their ownership of the pieces. The teachers intervened and banned lego. They were worried about the power relationships and thought the children needed some education on authority, ownership and inequality.

Now the kids here were aged between 5 and 9. The teachers were worried that the older ones didn't appreciate the power they had over the others and the apparently arbitrary nature of all this. They turned the Lego experience into a later trading game stacked up against the older kids which, and this shouldn't be a shcok, the older kids didn't like one bit. It turns out they didn't like being arbitrarily put at the bottom of society. Funny that, they are like people that way.

Reading this well-meaning account and I wasn't there to appreciate the whole situation, so it is probably not appropriate to be judgmental, but were they out of their friggin minds? Let's be very clear about this. A group of 8 older children undertook an activity that involved the creation of an entire town out of Lego that took them two months to build. They were protective of it and excluded younger children who quite plausibly might have spent much of them time destroying the older kids' vision. You only have to observe this behaviour first hand for yourself to see it arise. It happens all of the time. It is an issue of control.

So quite understandably, when faced with the destruction they had tried so long to prevent, the older childrens' immediate reaction was to maintain control. They didn't see it as an opportunity to spread the wealth in a brave new world. They were mourning their lost creation and were not ready to move on. And the result of this; they lost everything and then were subjected to "lessons" in power and authority as the losers in society.

What disturbs me is that this was, as these things go, a very positive activity. There were eight kids who had formed a group to build Legotown. They had taken pride in it and had learned to work together and protect themselves from outside interference. Most of the time, one kids takes over and all is lost quickly. This activity sustained itself and was well above average for collective behaviour. The fact that it involved age segregation is just too bad. You can't have everything.

The teachers didn't see it that way and moved in a way that seems to the reader to punish the older children. Their explanations about what is going on are no less sophisticated than most adults on the topic. They hadn't devolved into Lord of the Flies or anything like it.

As I see it, the issue was not about Legotown; the children who built that owned it and that is surely fine. The issue was about the legos themselves. That was the scarce resource. If the older children were monopolising that, then that was the issue. The appropriate response would be surely to have rationed the lego and distributed that more fairly. If the older children wanted more lego, then they would have to do a deal with others. The idea that the thing they owned was gone if it was destroyed is surely too much. Would they have to give up their land if the house on it burned down? Was that the message?

Some commentators have been ridiculously vitriolic in their critique of these teachers. Yes they wrote up their account but then again they were just trying to work out how to teach children about fairness and society. It isn't easy to do this. What worries me is not their views about that -- in my experience, many teachers share that -- it is that they might have chosen the wrong moment to have the lesson and so it may not have been effectively. It is also not clear even from their account that the children didn't understand the forces at work. They saw the inequality based on something real -- age -- something they suffered at the other end of -- rather than something random and clearly stacked against them -- something that the trading game gave.

So I also don't agree that this tells us something of the appropriate values of capitalism or what have you. There is no real basis for this as a commentary on how we should organise society. This didn't really reflect that.

Instead, it tells us more about how children view and respond to ownership. In my experience, different individuals respond in different ways. Let me go to my own experience. My eldest, 8 year old, sees ownership as an 'option value.' She likes to own things just in case she needs them later on. So she will hoard and acquire anything. Nothing is immune to that and her room is a monument to that. The sheer waste in resources to me is distressing but that is just how she is.

My 6 six year old son, on the other hand, sees ownership as the ability to deny others access. He couldn't care less about owning stuff and won't try and take ownership from others. But give him ownership of something and he just loves it. He uses the toy and thing and takes care of it. It is exactly what we want ownership to mean.

The two extremes here represent what is right and wrong about ownership but not perhaps in the way you think. My son's view emphasises the caring and use role of ownership -- it encourage things to be used efficiently and appropriately. My daughter's view emphasises the accumulation and creating role of ownership -- it encourages things to be made and acquired in the first place. Society requires both to function efficiently. Just having one leads to inefficiency -- through either waste or forgone opportunity.

The kids at Hilltop employed both. They owned enough material to create and they excluded enough others to maintain what they were doing. If only more adults could work out that compromise as effectively.